I have a confession to make: I’ve been thinking about salsa all wrong. One internal complaint in the salsa wars, a family quarrel as it were, frames the debate as “commercial” vs. “old school.” The aesthetic preference–one I’ve shared and promulgated over the years–is for streetwise, hardcore salsa dura over lame, overproduced salsa romantica.

There’s something to this conventional wisdom. Listening to the soft, erotic hits of salsa’s post-disco algal bloom can feel like blackmail–as in, “I know what you did (in the ’80s and ’90s).” Even Fania’s salsa disco fusion, a rarely raved about stepchild of the late ’70s, seems quirky and energized compared to the synthethizers and smooth trombones that followed, patchwork productions that meant nothing more than a paycheck to studio musicians who never met face to face.

But the more I piece together the lost history of salsa–the myriad albums never reissued on CD, not to mention moments that never made it into a recording studio–the more I see salsa not nostalgically, as a pure cultural birth that met its downfall through commercial success, but as the result of two streams of aesthetic influence, sometimes oppositional and sometimes working in tandem, which run through the entire history of la musica, from mambo to the most avant garde Afro-Cuban Jazz.

Salsa emerged as a commercial phenomenon in 1964 when the term was first marketed by Jerry Masucci’s and Johnny Pacheco’s Fania label. That much is not in dispute, but it’s a good starting point. Sociological movements like Civil Rights, Black Power, Puerto Rican Independence, Anti-Vietnam War and the counterculture of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues all helped fan salsa’s spark into an explosion.

But it casts the history of salsa in a different light to think of it in terms of the tension and interaction between two musical forces: experimentation (with harmonies, structures, instrumentation, modern, urban and outside elements) and tradition, the Afro-Antillean dance music at its rhythmic core.

John Storm Roberts, in The Latin Tinge, describes the salsa movement that began in the ’60s as a “tipico revival” of Cuban music, which went underground among Nuyorquinos when the United States lost access to Cuba after the revolution. Some of salsa’s biggest commercial successes of the ’70s are also agreed upon as some of the best salsa albums ever made. What they have in common is this confluence of the two aesthetic streams of experimentation and tradition, often blended in such a unique way that it becomes a signature sound. Colon and Blades mix Puerto Rican jibaro music and barrio poetry set to vibes and police sirens. Harlow puts psychedelic shekere and electric guitar with his charanga violins and conjunto trumpets. Eddie Palmieri opens jazz modalities and improvisation within the fundamental piano structures of the son montuno. Santeria comes together with jazz, village rhythms with urban life, Caribbean sounds move from New York’s dancehalls into the streets, and another permutation in the New World synthesis is born.

This urge to bring Afro-Antillean folkloric and religious music into modern context runs back to Arsenio Rodriguez, founder of the son conjunto. Almost irreverently commercial in his attempts to appeal to a wide audience, he covered American rock tunes like “Hang On Sloopy” and packaged orisha song in dance fads like “Chango Pachanga.” A lyrical image for this basic tension in motion appears in the very first son to use the term “salsa”: Ignacio Piñeiro’s “Echale Salsita” (1933), about a walk past the bright lights of town into the countryside to hear music, have fun and eat Cuban-Congolese food.

Intuitively, the kaleidoscopic history of Latin music of the last hundred years feels continuous. Today’s Cuban dance music has a radically different aesthetic from the salsa dura renaissance that has its base in New York, but both engage tradition through experimentation in a way that marks their histories and identities. From the seminal Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino (with pianist Oscar Hernandez, now leading the salsa renaissance with his Spanish Harlem Orchestra) to Los Van Van, it’s not strictly a story of corrupting market forces vs. salsa made the good old-fashioned way. Salsa hasn’t changed, but my thinking about it has. As dark corners are illuminated, new pictures emerge.

Not to be forgotten, in any case: Salsa is a dish. For four nights last month, I was at the center of the universe: New York was my oyster, and I set out gathering pearls from Birdland to the Bronx. In this era when music is mostly recorded and filtered through headphones, hearing jazz in an intimate setting is like finally having a face-to-face conversation after talking on the phone. Unlike concert halls, you can see the sound as fast as it travels to your ear. Sitting at Birdland with Chico O’Farrill’s Jazz Orchestra, I thought, this is how the universe should be: all of us together in a dark room, with light and power at the center.

Andy Gonzalez (seen in the documentary Calle 54) is the perfect bassist. There are no obstacles between him and the sound he wants, and the road is wide open on “Havana Blues.” Reynaldo Jorge, Jim Seeley, David Bixler and other notables in the brass section romanced us with a meltdown bolero set. The O’Farrill arrangements use horns like voices, with articulated attacks and the widest spectrum of atmospheric colors. Chico’s widow, Lupe, is there to hear the sets with her son Arturo, who leads the orchestra from the piano.

On to the Blue Note. Being at a rumba with Cachao, this jowly king of the mambo, jester of the upright bass, is unforgettable. Documentaries play up his gravitas, but Cachao’s humor is never far below the surface. I’m so close to the stage that I can read the label inside his instrument, which has scratches and chewed edges from the percussive raps it’s taken. It’s a surreal moment if ever there was one, nothing between me and the maestro but his mike stand. Alfredo Valdes Jr. couldn’t be but four feet away at the piano, looking zen as he loops his trancelike montunos and solos. Whenever Jimmy Bosch takes a trombone solo, Cachao’s face lights up. Jimmy plays it to the hilt, mischievously weaving his way through the audience to serenade the maestro center stage.

Before the show, Lupe O’Farrill and clarinetist Tata Palau are passing around a sepia photo of her husband and Tata in ruffle-sleeved rumba shirts. The two played together in Armando Orefiche’s Havana Cuban Boys, who took Cuban music to Europe in the ’30s. They chuckle as if they were watching home movies.

“I had a big party at my house for Candido and Cachao last night!” says Lupe, looking glamorous in a glittering black snood reminiscent of her days as a nightclub singer. Sure enough, upstairs I run into timbalero Jimmy Delgado, and Jimmy introduces me to “Candi,” big as life and looking dapper in Elegua’s colors, a pristine black suit and red tie. Cándido Camero, a Cuban drummer of Chano Pozo’s generation, was the first to play multiple congas on stage. He gigged with jazz pop singer Tony Bennett, and cut his own albums, often with a calypso flair, like Brujerias de Cándido.

On the live music calendar

Thursday, April 27, 8 p.m.: Jazz band & Charanga Carolina, featuring sonero Nelson Delgado. Hill Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill. $10, $5 seniors, $2 students.

Friday, April 28, 11 p.m.: Samecumba. Carmen’s Cuban Cafe, Morrisville. 467-8080. $10.

Saturday, April 29, 11 a.m.: Color Latino. Doris Duke Center, Duke Gardens, Durham. www.duke.edu. Free.

Saturday, May 6, 1-6 p.m.: Saludos Compay & Carnavalito. Lake Wheeler, Raleigh. 662-5704. $6, $4 seniors, free ages 5 & under.

Saturday, May 6, 9 p.m.: Bio Ritmo. The Regency Room, Elm Street Center, Greensboro. (336) 333-2605, www.piedmontjazzblues-fest.com. $19.

Send news for the Latin Beat to spike@duke.edu.